I can't hear the train a-comin': Feds want whistleless railroad warnings

| 12/19/2003

Seems like the inmate in Johnny Cash's song “Folsom Prison Blues” isn't the only one tortured by train whistles – the Federal Railroad Administration recently said it wants to give communities the option of not hearing what poets and songwriters have long viewed as a romantic calling from a bygone era.

On Dec. 18, it proposed to let cities add safety devices at crossings to use as a warning in place of the noisy whistle. They may, for example, install automated warning horns, essentially speakers on poles that direct a recorded warning at traffic and affect fewer people living near train tracks.

The plan would supersede local laws by requiring flashing lights and gates before banning whistles or horns. Cities and towns also must either demonstrate that a wreck is unlikely, or make safety improvements that compensate for the loss of the whistle but still warn people of the oncoming train.

“This rule means less noise for millions of Americans living near railroad crossings and improved safety for everyone driving over the tracks,” Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a statement.

Train whistles have been banned by about 2,000 communities in 24 states, mainly in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Virginia, The Associated Press reported.

A federal law passed in 1994 requires locomotive horns to announce their presence with a blast of noise when they are nearing any of the nation's 150,000 grade crossings. The law was meant to set a nationwide standard.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, whose suburban Chicago district is crisscrossed by railroad tracks, delayed federal regulators from adopting a new whistle requirement three years ago.

“Train horns are important safety devices, but they can also be a nuisance for residents,” Mineta said. “This (interim final) rule gives thousands of local communities the tools they need to quiet train horns while improving safety at highway-rail grade crossings, and provides communities with existing whistle bans the framework for maintaining those prohibitions. I look forward to working with communities as we move to implement this rule next year.”